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Why Clarkson Drove the BBC into a Cul de Sac

by Published on

One of the overriding attractions of the blokey show was the larger than life character Jeremy Clarkson. A man whose family were responsible for paying for his public school education by successfully selling their own Paddington Bear toys has a reputation of being far from cuddly. People forget he is in a show and playing a part, and when I met him, he was quite charming.
robert gibson websiteOver the years Clarkson has courted controversy but up until recently this has helped boost rather than diminish his reputation.

Recent video footage of Jeremy allegedly letting the “n” word slip when quoting a children’s rhyme brought a new level of interest and unwanted attention from pressure groups keen to see him taken “off air”. The same was true over an oriental person, described as being on a bridge “with a slope”. Then there was the “Argentine” affair and the Falklands plate.

Having apologised publicly for any offense he may have caused it looked as though he had survived yet again until the fateful incident late in the evening in a Yorkshire hotel.

The rant and physical attack on his producer proved to be the final straw for the BBC who, after suspension, investigation and a week of media speculation decided it was time for Mr Clarkson to put Top Gear into reverse.

They were in a tough spot. If he was an employee, in strict employment law terms Clarkson had committed an act of gross misconduct which is unlikely to result in any other decision than dismissal.

Clarkson was actually a freelancer, contracted to the BBC and as such it was more straightforward to simply cancel the contract with immediate effect. Carelessly, they had left all 3 presenters on the same contract ending at the same time.

Despite the apparent simplicity of the contractual arrangement it was not a straightforward decision. The complication and reason for a passionate response from Prime Minister, pundits and petitions was Clarkson’s celebrity and determination that without the “big fella” there would be no Top Gear. That and the possible loss of £150m per annum in earnings to the BBC was a big problem.

To his credit and no doubt in an attempt to mitigate the problem at an early stage Clarkson reported himself to BBC management but unfortunately it was not enough to save him. The producer, Mr Tymon who is an employee, appears not to have reported Clarkson but was potentially a future claimant against the BBC. It is entirely possible that Mr Tymon could claim constructive dismissal if he were to leave and Clarkson remained in post as he could refer to a break down in trust given the clear evidence of verbal and physical abuse. But would he? Working on that show must be highly prized.

The BBC’s dilemma is one faced by many businesses including sports clubs. The biggest stars, rainmakers, deal doers and talent offer great financial returns. Unfortunately those who often find themselves in the exulted position, top of their game, can be hard work, make increasing demands of their employers. They become bored and increasingly seek out new ways to feed their desire for a thrill. Making sales, scoring goals, broadcasting to millions worldwide can become routine if certain personality types are not handled correctly.

In business we need to be aware of these signs and ensure that the behaviour of our staff does not get out of hand. It is easy to say arrogant abusive behaviour should not be tolerated under any circumstances no matter how big the star. However, perhaps we need to be more “imaginative” in our handling of “stars”. A public apology to Mr Tymon from Mr C, a personal donation of £1m to a suitable charity; a public referral for “anger management” all could have helped. So too the provision of a hot meal late at night for an individual earning you £150m a year, whatever the time.

Despite the action taken in relation to Top Gear it appears you can’t keep Jeremy out of the spotlight or the news. In a rather odd ;turnaround Mr Clarkson was due to appear on “Have I got News for You”, as we know that“s a BBC show. It now seems Jeremy has thought better of this and has pulled out. Could it be that Mr C. spotted that if he went ahead with the show it would send a rather mixed message to the average viewer who would rightly question how he can be dismissed for his behaviour by the BBC one week and re-engaged by the same tax payers funded corporation in another.

He is however committed to finishing off the Top Gear series as “Clarkson May and Hammond”.

Whilst there’s a certain schadenfreude in watching the Beeb’s floundering management of the affair it is a salutary lesson for us all when managing our businesses.

I for one will miss the laddish camaraderie of Top Gear which is 3 pals mucking about. No doubt MR C and chums will return in a re-branded version of the show on a new channel. One would just hope that Jeremy learns how to turn a few corners to miss the oncoming wall.

Robert Gibson is Partner and Head of Employment Law.

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